Well, here we go again. Another one of those “DSLR era is ending” things. Recently, ex-Google VP Vic Gundotra stated that “The end of the DSLR era for most people has already arrived” when describing the Portrait Mode software blur feature on the iPhone 7 Plus. While we have to give extra crudence to the “most people” thing that we’ll explain later on, it’s probably the perfect time to reiterate that comparing a smartphone camera directly against an interchangeable lens camera (a DSLR and a MILC) is frankly pretty silly, and it’s probably time we give that comparison a break until super-advanced software makes their way around.
BUT PHONE CAMERAS ARE ALREADY VERY GOOD!!!
That I will most certainly agree with on all levels. The phone camera has seen tremendous progress and evolution over the past decade. From tiny little VGA cameras that were stuck on as more of an afterthought, the phone camera has evolved into a serious selling point for any phone, with backside-illuminated stacked sensors that either have a very high-resolution on a large sensor or a slightly lower-resolution with larger pixels, backed up by super-advanced post-processing and hardware features like active laser-assisted autofocus and an RGB/IR sensor for calibrating white balance. Indeed, it’s not hard to see why the smartphone camera has pretty much toppled the compact point-and-shoot as the default camera option for most people as it’s everywhere with you, takes a good shot quickly and easily, and can be shared very quickly, all in one device, and some, like the LG V20, have also gained a following with content creators due to its wide array of manual controls for not only photos but video as well.
That being said, the phone camera, as improved as they are, can’t unseat a DSLR in terms of raw capability. And the reason is as simple as basic physics.
BIGGER IS BETTER
The one limitation of a smartphone is space. A smartphone needs to cram in a ton of stuff in a limited amount of space, so as such, a smaller image sensor is usually used. While phones like the Google Pixel have managed to cram in a 1/2.3″ sensor designed more for compact point-and-shoots, most phone camera sensors are between 1/3″ to 1/2.6″ on the diagonal.
In comparison, most consumer/prosumer ILCs use APS-C sensors, which are significantly larger than even the largest smartphone camera sensor in use to date (the 808 PureView has a 1/1.2″ sensor), and this gets even more significant when you climb to 35mm full-frame sensors and even medium-format sensors, which are so huge, it makes the sensor on the Google Pixel look like a tiny ant in comparison.
The larger sensor size brings a heap of advantages, which are, but not limited to;
- Higher resolution without affecting pixel size drastically – When the sensor size is larger, you have much more headroom to increase the resolution of the sensor without affecting the size of each individual pixel in a drastic manner that would ruin low-light performance. Alternatively, the resolution can be made the same (or lower in the case of the Sony Alpha A7S) in favor of larger pixels, which increases light sensitivity.
- Increased sensitivity to light – With a larger sensor, there’s more surface area that can receive light. Furthermore, the larger sensor also means a larger lens. The net result is increased sensitivity to light and also helps improve the camera’s dynamic range.
- Softer “bokeh” – Because the lens size is also larger, the depth-of-field is also shallower. When paired with a fast lens, this can create images with backgrounds that completely washes off, and can deliver creamy backgrounds even on “slower” f-stops.
- Less artificial noise – A larger sensor and pixel combo is significantly less susceptible to digital noise. Smaller sensors are more taxed when faced with situations that require very high ISOs, resulting in a very grainy image that requires extremely heavy and aggressive noise-reduction to rein in. A larger sensor won’t be as heavily taxed until hitting 5-digit ISO figures.
An interchangeable lens camera also has the advantage of being expandable through a different array of lenses ranging from wide-angle fisheye primes to extreme telephoto lenses, with fast standard primes and fast standard zooms in the middle for extra versatility, allowing them to be adaptable to different conditions and styles of photography, and these are usually regarded as one of the key areas where these cameras truly excel at, along with different hotshoe attachments and other accessories. Add all that together and there is a reason the interchangeable lens camera still exists today.
Of course, we’re just comparing the raw capabilities of these cameras. If you put the person operating these cameras into play, then it becomes a different story. How capable is the one holding the camera? Does he/she know how to adjust camera parameters to get the best possible shot and then edit them to bring them out more in a RAW processor like Adobe Lightroom?
It should be reiterated that photography is about one expressing their photographic style, and in order to do so, one must experiment and practice multiple methods in order to improve and evolve. A better camera with a larger sensor is not enough. You need to grow out of full-auto modes and practice adjusting f-stops, shutter speeds and ISOs bit-by-bit.
While the larger sensor camera will obviously be the better performer, in the hands of someone with a keen eye, a smartphone can produce some very solid images, provided they are in the right conditions. (Note that some of the samples above have been edited)
The conclusion for this is that while the smartphone camera has evolved by leaps and bounds, comparing it to a DSLR and even claiming that it’s “dead” seems quite silly. While it has to be mentioned that the reason consumers are using their smartphones to take pictures is due to their all-in-one nature and generally decent optical quality under most conditions plus the ability to share them very quickly after taking the shot, in terms of optical quality, it just can’t match up.
And to mention on Vic’s point that the “end of the DSLR era for most people has already arrived”, I should point out that the DSLR hasn’t really been a big consumer product for a long while. The primary con of a DSLR is their big and bulky nature, which was why the traditional point-and-shoot was a popular product back in the day as it was cheaper, smaller, lighter and got the job done. Naturally, when the cellphone camera improved, that camera soon died off, although I should also mention that a compact MILC like the Sony Alpha a5100 with a pancake prime lens is remarkably compact while also packing an APS-C sensor that’s the same IMX210 from the Sony Alpha a6000. While the consumer likely won’t consider an ILC, many hobbyists and professionals will still be a driving force in their adoption, although a dip in camera sales have affected companies like Nikon.
At the end of the day, the smartphone camera today has evolved a metric ton over the years, and has pretty much replaced the point-and-shoot for the average Joe as it can pull off some nice shots and these shots can easily be shared quickly due to a phone’s connected nature. However, despite all these improvements, the performance gulf between an interchangeable lens camera and a smartphone is still pretty large, and it’s honestly really silly to proclaim that the DSLR era is “dead” or even making a comparison due to that performance gulf. Of course, computational photography is fast becoming a thing and if you’ve seen what a Google engineer was able to do with a Nexus 6P plus a Pixel and image stacking, the future is definitely exciting, but until then, the DSLR will always be the winner in terms of raw image performance.